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Planet Aid insists that it’s helping the needy. Critics insist that the group is helping itself.

A blue box marked “Planet Aid” clings to the cement side of the Dupont Circle CVS on P Street NW. It looks like a giant mailbox, but with a circus-tent-like triangular roof and a large red flap that pulls back so you can toss in old clothes and shoes. A sign explains that Planet Aid is a nonprofit humanitarian organization that collects clothes for, and donates funds to, international aid efforts around the world, particularly groups fighting AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa.

During the last year, Planet Aid has popped more than 200 of these donation bins down around the Washington area, including dozens of new ones in high-traffic areas in the past two weeks.

What the blue boxes don’t say is that Planet Aid—along with several related organizations—has been accused of being a branch of a cultlike movement founded in Denmark in the late ’60s, called the Teachers Group, or Tvind. A collective that pools the money of volunteers’ and workers’ salaries, the group has evolved, critics say, from a legitimate aid organization into a multinational network of interlinked organizations that raise funds, recruit idealistic participants, and funnel money to a secretive cadre of leaders.

Governments and journalists in Denmark, Belgium, Holland, and England have investigated the Teachers Group and its various arms—the Institute for International Cooperation and Development (IICD), Humana People to People, and Planet Aid—for misleading volunteers, running misguided aid projects, and profiting from the sale of donated clothes.

According to the prologue to the “Humana People to People Charter,” an elliptical document available at www.humana.org and referenced on the Planet Aid Web site, the movement grows through a proliferation of groups:

[D]riven onward and upwards by the many activists’ constant and consequent and immense effort, conforming to the tunes from the frontiers of development and via the state departments in the capitals to the front pages of the international press, the association produced an offspring. Another association! And upwards it went. Another offspring, another association. And one more.

Teachers Group could be worth hundreds of millions of dollars, according to London’s Guardian newspaper, which investigated Humana in Britain in a 1993 two-part series. Humana, headquartered at the Murgwi Estate in Zimbabwe’s countryside, has branches in 32 countries and has run several used-clothing fundraising groups in the past.

The British government’s Charity Commission followed up on the Guardian series with an investigation of its own and shut down Humana’s used-clothing organization in Britain in 1993 for donating money to charities that didn’t exist. The commission told the Guardian that Humana had “non-charity fund-raising aspects.”

Humana leaders regrouped and reopened the clothing-collection program in the United Kingdom in 1998 under the name Planet Aid. Planet Aid, one of several “Aid” groups affiliated with Humana People to People—such as Relief Aid and Child Aid—was founded in the United States, incorporating in Boston in January 1997 under the leadership of two Scandinavians, Ester Neltrup and Mikael Norling. Neltrup and Norling previously worked with Teachers Group affiliate IICD. Planet Aid now collects clothes in drop boxes in eight East Coast states and the District. It is one of more than 25 Humana-affiliated groups that operate under an umbrella group called the Federation of Associations.

“Our clothes collection provides vital funding for HUMANA People to People developments,” explains Planet Aid’s Web site, www.planetaid.org. “The clothes are either sold in our own stores, sold to clothing recyclers, or donated to HUMANA People to People projects in Africa, Latin America and Asia.”

According to an October Boston Magazine article, Planet Aid earned $2 million in 1999 through the sale of used clothes, though the story doesn’t give its source for that amount.

British journalist Michael Durham, who has studied the interconnected groups for five years and written dozens of articles about them, maintains a layered Web site (www.tvindalert.org.uk) dedicated to exposing IICD, Planet Aid, and other organizations as money-making apparatuses for Teachers Group.

“[The group] exploits people’s feelings of guilt about the Third World to manipulate and pressure them into blind loyalty,” Durham writes from England in an e-mail about Teachers Group, IICD, and Planet Aid. “In those circumstances, all kinds of errors in judgment and financial misdemeanors can be overlooked. This is not an organization that could stand up to a full and open public scrutiny.”

Neltrup has worked for Planet Aid since it started in the United States and directs the Washington office, which opened in October 1999. Before that, she spent more than two decades working for IICD and Humana in a variety of countries. Planet Aid, insists Neltrup, is not part of a cult but a separate humanitarian organization that works with IICD and Humana because they share similar goals of helping people. The criticisms are merely rumors and are virtually baseless, she says.

“Unless I’ve been brainwashed, we’re making a difference,” says Neltrup. “I’ve worked in Africa. I know some of the people who have benefited. I know how much work goes into it.”

Neltrup says Planet Aid is just a smaller version of the Salvation Army or Goodwill. But whereas the Salvation Army sells its donated clothing directly to the public and runs its own service programs, Planet Aid in Washington doesn’t have the facilities to sort the clothes it collects. Each week, workers empty the clothing bins, which hold up to 250 pounds of clothing and shoes, and Planet Aid sells the clothing to one of several wholesalers. Neltrup will not disclose how much wholesalers pay Planet Aid for donated clothes, saying it depends on several factors, and neither Neltrup nor Norling will disclose the names of wholesalers that they use. As a yardstick, Goodwill Industries receives 20 to 25 cents per pound of donated clothing, according to a Goodwill spokesperson in D.C. At that rate, Planet Aid would make at least $10,000 per week if all 200 bins were filled each week and sold to wholesalers.

Neltrup denies accusations that Planet Aid keeps much of the money from selling the donated clothing. She added that she hadn’t heard of a 1992 Swedish government investigation, reported in a 1998 Copenhagen Post story, into Humana clothing donation programs in Sweden. That study found that only 2 percent of money raised by Humana went directly to aid developing countries and that 80 percent of the funds went toward project leader salaries and to train “solidarity workers.”

Norling, now the New York-based president and director of Planet Aid in the United States, denies that such a study was ever conducted and says he’s incensed by questions about the group’s fundraising practices and beliefs. “You should go to Africa and ask the children dying of AIDS,” Norling says. “They are the people who can testify to what we are doing—not someone sitting in an armchair.”

But Bent Johannesen, a member of the Movement Against Tvind in Denmark, a group of former Tvind “teachers,” says in an e-mail that such denials are commonplace: “The report exists all right. It was made by a private firm on request of the Swedish Foreign Affairs Ministry.”

A former leader of IICD, who wishes to remain anonymous, argues that to focus only on the way Planet Aid dispenses its profits from donated clothes is to miss a larger point. This critic alleges that IICD, Humana, and other Teachers Group affiliates take advantage of young volunteers in an effort to further their agenda of “Solidary Humanism,” a belief system outlined in the Humana People to People Charter. “This isn’t torture we’re talking about,” asserts this critic, who nonetheless sketches a picture of volunteers who believe that their idealism has been abused.

One such volunteer, Stan Gildersleeve of San Jose, Calf., worked for IICD in 1991. He was part of a 12-person group that spent six months traveling through Central America, mostly interviewing residents, he says. Each volunteer paid IICD $7,000, but Gildersleeve claims that IICD kept nearly $6,000 of that amount, leaving the group with nothing to spend and forced to beg villagers for a place to stay. He thinks most of the money went to support Teachers Group.

“It was a rip-off, but I don’t regret that I went,” Gildersleeve says in a telephone interview. “On the surface, it all looks like a very humanitarian organization. But when you look at it more carefully, it looks like a few people are getting all the chips and nothing’s really getting done.” CP